To the untrained ear the term “headhopping” might be assumed to be a term that applies to home crafted beer. But among professional editors, headhopping is what amateur authors do when they haven’t done quite enough study about point of view. In a story this problem manifests itself when the reader has assumed that a certain character is the one whose point of view is being used to tell the story, and the writer breaks this pact with the reader, without warning changing the point of view from which the story is being told. In the first person, the POV character is the narrator and most often the protagonist. In the close third person, this is the person whose thoughts are made privy to the reader, and this person can change throughout the story, but there are certain conventions that must be abided by in order to successfully execute such a move.
Because headhopping happens without warning, and breaks the accepted rules of storytelling that readers have come to see as conventional, it also has the effect of destroying any suspension of disbelief that the author has built up to the point where the pact between reader and author is broken. This typically happens in scenes during dialogue between two or more characters during the “beats.” Beats are the little bits of action that are used, sparingly and appropriately, to create tension, characterize, or establish the setting while characters speak to each other. Sometimes beats are also used to note a character’s internal thoughts, and this can be problematic when the author fails to help the reader keep track of whose head (POV) started the scene.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, starts the chapter on POV with an example of headhopping from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The book goes on to note that though McMurtry’s novel is powerfully written, many readers have difficulty becoming engaged by it because of the constant POV shifts. In this particular scene the POV changes three times in the space of 132 words. For some, seeing an example of a POV shift in a published piece indicates that it is an acceptable practice. But when unpublished authors make such a suggestion, they might be overlooking the fact that being a well-established published author provides some clout and artistic freedom in authorship that others simply cannot get away with when they’re just starting out. And it still doesn’t mean that the piece is as good as it could be.
Headhopping was not always so frowned upon in storytelling. There was a time when the third-person omniscient POV (or God perspective) was in common use, but accepted practices in literature, as in just about every other art form, change with time. And if unestablished authors go against common practices they’re taking the chance that the work they’ve spent so much time on will simply be placed in the reject pile when an agent or publishing representative sees that the manuscript does not follow contemporary conventions. The next two blogs in this series will address other issues pertaining to POV, including a brief history of trends in literature over time pertaining to POV.